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What: Coloma Gold Rush Live
Who: Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Where: Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Highway 49 in Coloma
When: Friday to Sunday, Oct. 11-13 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: $8 per vehicle parking fee includes event entry
Ever wonder whether you were born in the wrong century? Do visions of cowboys riding down dusty streets as women call out from bawdy house windows come to mind? Have your fingers itched to wrap themselves around the edges of a gold pan as you swish the river’s water over the shining pebbles, hoping for a golden glint in the bottom of the pan?
It’s not too late — the chance to experience a lifestyle that evokes a longing for days gone by is being offered for three days in October, a trio of chances to catch a glimpse of life in the 1850s. And it’s right in the heart of where James Marshall discovered gold 165 years ago in the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, as the park presents Coloma Gold Rush Live.
A tent town will take over Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Highway 49, Friday to Sunday, Oct. 11-13, as nearly 100 volunteers and park docents will recreate a gold mining community complete with 30 structures that include a blacksmith shop, homes, saloon and more, all on the acreage that features as its centerpiece the replica of the mill where gold was discovered Jan. 24, 1848.
Scenes from the past
In addition to the dozens and dozens of volunteers who will don period outfits and populate the tent town, there will be special presentations such as one by the Mormon Battalion, which will fire off a real cannon during the three days of historical hijinks. Visitors on any one of the days, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., will be tempted to wear Old West clothing themselves, and are encouraged to do so, according to park ranger Eric Carter.
The 43-year-old ranger added that this year, there will be a new feature to Coloma Gold Rush Live. The popular annual event started off in the late 1990s as the ’49er Family Fest.
“We’re going to have pouches of ‘gold’ coins,” Carter said, showing one of the shiny pieces that may be purchased for $10 during the three days of fun.
And if you find yourself picking through your closet for that favorite old gingham dress handed down by great-great-grandma — but coming up empty — a visit to the Gold Rush Mercantile right next to the park museum will get you fixed right up.
In addition to clothing that includes red long-johns, called Union suits in their day, other selected items at the mercantile include shirts, dresses and even coonskin caps.
If you wish to have your photo taken in period costume during the outing, a photo booth is available — and the clothing is provided during the photo shoot.
Plenty to do
Speaking of shoot, that cannon wielded by the Mormon Battalion is just one of the heart-pumping activities that will occur, and you can use the coins you bought earlier to pay for some of the fun.
Plenty of “pioneer” food such as cornbread-and-beans and stew will be available, along with snacks and candy, but the public is welcome to bring a picnic lunch and drinks, excluding glass containers.
Sixty-seven-year-old Karen Diridoni has volunteered with Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park for 15 years, working as a clerk at Gold Rush Mercantile, and looks forward each October to the three-day event that now looms on the horizon.
“If you want to put yourself into an 1850s tent town, then this is where you need to be,” she said. “You’ll experience the sights, sounds and smells of that period as you walk down the streets, and you’ll feel that you really are back in that day.”
Diridoni said that if you’re the shy type, don’t worry, it’s not the type of event where audience members are asked to actively participate in the goings-on.
“You won’t be picked on — unless you feel you want to be,” she said, around an enigmatic smile.
In addition to characters portraying the gold miners and townsfolk of the 1850s, members of the Native Californian tribes who made the Coloma Valley their home, long before Marshall plucked a tiny gold flake from the water, will be portrayed.
A hauntingly striking figure of a Nisenan Maidu woman is part of a display inside the park museum and visitors often are heard speaking of how real the figure appears. She has her head bent over her task, using a grinding rock to render acorns and grains into food for her family. Nearby, her daughter weaves a basket and her son proudly looks upon a fresh trout on the end of his spear point.
The three Native American figures cause one to wonder, again, whether life in a different century might have been better or at least more peaceful.
Running the museum on a recent Tuesday afternoon was none other than “James Marshall” himself, the man who changed the world forever. Remarkably, it was also James Marshall’s birthday, Oct. 8, as Ed Allen pointed out.
“He was 38 when he discovered gold,” said Allen, 69, who has portrayed James Marshall at the park for nine years and will be playing Marshall in skits near the Sutter’s Mill replica all three days of Gold Rush Live.
“I’ll pretty much be talking continuously for three days,” laughed Allen, who said he majored in anthropology and history and so is a good fit for the job. “As a historian I can portray a unique historical figure because I literally have the background for it.
“This is where I belong.”
Allen, whose volunteer duties include stints running the museum, said James Marshall was an intelligent man who was “very good with his hands.”
“He had a good, mechanical mind but he also enjoyed a good drink — quite a lot,” Allen continued. “And he chewed copious amounts of tobacco, so his clothing was always stained. He used camphor, creosote and herbs to keep away ‘evil humors’ — but that also kept people away.”
The museum docent paused to help a couple interested in a display of rocks, some bearing gold, then continued his reflections on the man he has come to know as well as his own close friends.
“Unfortunately, James Marshall died in poverty,” Allen said. “At one point the California State Legislature had voted to give him a $200 per month stipend to get him through his later years, but when he went before the Legislature when that body was considering keeping the funding in place, a bottle of brandy fell from his pocket onto the floor, loudly, and they voted to reduce the amount to $100 a month, thinking that was what he was spending his money on.
“Later, they eliminated it entirely.”
James Marshall died in 1885, in a tiny cabin in the small town of Kelsey.
“He was ‘chasing the tail’ like so many other of the miners,” said Allen, referring to the practice of running after whatever latest rumor of gold made it to the ears of the townsfolk. “He finally wandered back into town, sometime in the 1850s, in rags and emaciated.”
Hear more from Allen and other volunteers with their remarkable reminiscences during Coloma Gold Rush Live, and don’t miss your chance to jangle your spurs as you throw back a sarsaparilla at the town saloon.
Friday, Oct. 11, is the day when school children will converge on the living history event, with Saturday and Sunday more in the line of family fun.
Admission to Coloma Gold Rush Live is included in the $8 per vehicle parking fee.
For more information call 530-622-3470.